And if I’m alone in bed, I will go to the window, look up at the sky, and feel certain that loneliness is a lie, because the Universe is there to keep me company
People who are lonely and have a feeling of being unloved could benefit by starting
to think of themselves as already being loved, because they are capable of giving
much love to others. And as they give, they too, in return, receive.
Both words are often used interchangeably and yet there is a world of difference
between the two.
You can be alone, through choice, and yet be totally at peace with the world,
feeling good about yourself and the world. You can be alone, through choice,
and feel isolated, suffering the most incredible loneliness.
You can be alone, not through choice, and still feel okay about the state of being on your own. Or not. You could find yourself on a business trip, on your own, surrounded with people, in a new and vibrant city and feel excited, spirited, full of wonder and adventure.
On another evening, in that same city, still through choice and on your own, you may feel totally overwhelmed with a deep sense of loneliness, suddenly being on your own is not so good, you are reminded of friends and relatives and poignantly wish you were with them.
The context and your prevailing mood, your choices, all conspire to make you feel good or not so good about your state of being alone.
Loneliness per se is a multi-faceted and complex and often unpleasant emotional response to being on one’s own, isolated, lacking companionship or friendship, often having reached a stage in life when close family and friends are no longer in your life.
But loneliness can strike at any age, and catch you unawares. Although I had a “best friend” at primary and second school, and went from a primary school of 30 pupils to a secondary school of some 800 pupils, I felt hugely alone, rejected, AND lonely. I was one of the bullied.
I recall when I was 23 I gained a promotion at work and landed a new posting for which I had to relocate from Scotland to Germany, a country I loved, whose language I spoke; I was young, had been assigned the post because apparently I exhibited characteristics of being adventurous, creative, and willing to take risks. The post offered lots of free time so here I was, the whole of Europe at my feet, waiting to be explored.
I was to reside in a military officer’s mess, not, at first thought, considered to be a likely place of loneliness given all the messing dinners, parties, evening carousing in the bar as was the custom in the eighties.
But within days of arriving, I was overcome by intense almost paralysing feelings of loneliness. Whilst I shared lodgings with other officers, I had been assigned to a solo role; with no colleagues there was no way I would meet, during the day, with the others with whom I resided at night. And at night, they already had their established lives. And military life required conformity to social etiquette which was alien to me and which I found uncomfortable so I tended to recoil as much as I could. I found it difficult to integrate and so very quickly, by day, the professional me put on a brave face of confidence, but by night, I retired, alone, to my room, and felt both alone and lonely. At age 23. Was this possible? Was this how my life was to be?
Loneliness, you see, typically arrives when we feel anxious about a lack of connection or communication with other beings, both in the present and into the future. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people. Research shows that loneliness is widely prevalent throughout society among people, regardless of status, in marriages, relationships, families, veterans and those holding down successful careers and is often the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person's network of social relations is deficient in some important way such as when we age and find our peer relations diminished due to ill-health and / or death.
Loneliness can be painful, but pain can also be a messenger, spurring us into action to combat the loneliness, seeking activities and relationships. Or recognising we are alone and lonely, may spur us into feeling a failure, and enter the descent into depression and other debilitating, less than desirable negative states.
In western cultures, Christmas is often a time which surfaces most loneliness, a time when for weeks on end we are acutely aware of the coming festive season, with its almost obligatory jollity, surrounded by families and friends. And here we are, feeling anything but, even if we are surrounded by family and friends.
But it is nothing to be ashamed of.
A sudden change in circumstances can trigger loneliness; during 2015 and 2016 I
devoted my life totally to my younger sister, who was dying of cancer. I moved to a
new area, which I did not know, in order to live nearby. I had no time to integrate locally.
I was exhausted and my own health started to rapidly deteriorate. Suddenly I had that badge
of honour - of being old and with multiple morbidity.
When my sister died, I found myself isolated, alone, and started to fight the descending loneliness.
This unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship which we call loneliness, often happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want to have.
There are two broad types of loneliness:
· Emotional loneliness is felt when we miss the companionship of one particular person; often a spouse, sibling or best friend.
· Social loneliness is experienced when we lack a wider social network or group of friends.
Loneliness is a feeling that can come and go. It can be situational; some people feel it most at weekends, or specifically Sunday, or as mentioned before at Christmas, or other main holiday times. For some it can be a nightly occurrence, when we switch off the television and turn out the lights. It may be short lived, or chronic ie when someone feels lonely all or most of the time.
Risk factors - especially though not exclusively in older age:
Although we have said that loneliness can happen at any time, it is often felt more strongly as people get older and life situations change drastically. Risk factors that might lead to or exacerbate loneliness begin to increase and converge. Such risk factors include (but are not limited to):
Personal Wider Society
Poor health Lack of public transport, loss of private transport
Sensory loss Physical environment (e.g. no public toilets or benches to sit and rest
Loss of mobility Housing - not fit for the now purpose, too expensive
Reduced income Health services too far away
Bereavement Fear of crime
Retirement High population turnover, difficulty in making friends
Becoming a carer Demographics
Other changes Technological changes happening too quickly (+ cost implications)
(e.g. giving up driving) No family or friends close by
Threats to health
Loneliness is a bigger problem than just a painful emotional experience. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health: lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity.
Loneliness can become a health problem when it is in your life for a long time and joins forces with things like:
self harming or suicidal thoughts
drugs, tobacco and alcohol
anxiety or fear
inability to cope
These are all things that many of us come into contact with at different times of our life so none of us can ever say never to the likelihood of loneliness. They become a problem when they become stronger with the help of loneliness.
For example, some people smoke or use drugs or alcohol because they feel lonely. Sometimes it can become something they need all the time.
• Not only can this reduce possibilities of making new friends, it can mean losing the ones they had.
• A turn-off for new friends is the smelly clothes, bad breath and dull looking skin that cigarette smoking can do to you.
• This can lead to feeling lonelier. The vicious circle takes control and they lose control of your life.
Long-term loneliness can become a real health problem for many people.
Loneliness and physical health
Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26% which in and of itself is enough to hasten depression and death
Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke
Loneliness increases the risk of high blood pressure
Lonely individuals are also at higher risk of the onset of disability
Loneliness and multiple morbidity mean people are less likely to get out and socialize, get exercise, and perhaps stay home and, through boredom, snack more than most
Loneliness and mental health
Loneliness puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline
One study concludes lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia – by any standards, that is high
Lonely individuals are more prone to depression
Loneliness and low social interaction often give rise to suicide in older age
What can be done?
Whilst we each have to take responsibility for our own lives, situations, and health, a plea here is made to society, to humanity to reach out and do all we can to connect with others, to help other feel valued and recognised.
It is worth highlighting special problems associated with isolation. Often we feel lonely because we feel separate or isolated from other people or the community in which we live. There are many different reasons for this:-
Physical or geographic isolation can separate you from other people
With more widely scattered communities these days, members of a family seldom live so close to one another as they did even just a few years ago.
Discrimination or harassment because of your sexuality, race, gender, religious beliefs, intellectual or physical ability, or looks can make you feel separate from others.
Self-esteem / self -image – where this is poor we may not feel we can associate with others or other may not let us join “their” group
Moving to a new place can be isolating, especially if people speak a different language or have different customs or cultural expectations to you.
Lack of opportunities to 'get involved' can contribute. Things like high rates of unemployment, lack of money, having children (being a young parent you may also face undue criticism or judgement) or lack of affordable recreation places in a community can mean you spend most of your time at home.
Living with a controlling or abusive parent, adult or partner can mean that you are forced to stay home, told who you can and can't be friends with, and have your friends or family driven away.
You can become isolated if you have been removed from your parent by the courts, your parents have divorced or you (or a parent) have moved away.
The way you think about yourself and other people can lead to isolation. Are any of these you?
You suffer from anxiety.
You feel you have little to share with others - so you don't bother!
You feel others won’t like you
You don't like yourself.
You criticise or judge yourself - we can be our own harshest critics!
You find it difficult to trust people - this can be especially difficult if you've had an experience of abuse or violence.
You are embarrassed or ashamed of yourself - you might feel guilty, dirty, ugly or stupid.
You feel different to other people. This comes with living in a world where certain 'ways of being' have come to be expected. You might feel isolated if you cannot celebrate or show part of your identity, eg. if you are gay, if you have personal religious or spiritual beliefs, if you have a different skin colour.
You have a health condition that makes it difficult for you to get out or mix with other people, eg. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Schizophrenia, ADD/ADHD etc.
Ways through loneliness
Here are some ideas of what other people have done to change their feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Develop skills like assertiveness, conflict resolution, negotiation and problem solving; these can challenge the feelings of loneliness if it has crept into your life
If you join a group to learn about these, you will meet people as well.
Find helplines on issues that concern or interest you.
List your interests – music, dancing, gardening, travel, UA3 etc - and how you can reignite your passion
Make a list of what is contributing to your loneliness and find ways to deal with it; seek help from a counsellor, coach, or mentor or phone a helpline
Put your fear aside and take a risk; what might happen positively if you were bold?
If you are experiencing an abusive situation, tell someone you trust.
If you are of a religious or spiritual bent, and even if you are not, find what's on at your local churches.
Tell someone you trust how you are feeling. Talk to a trained counsellor - you can do this over the phone without even saying who you are!
Find groups of people where you hold a common interest. For example, join a sporting club, do a short course, or visit a support group, lunch group, speaker's group, etc
Be open to others' opinions and views.
Connect with other people through volunteer work or becoming involved in community projects.
Join in a sport or new hobby
Get out into the country if you can
Take a risk that will improve your life - move out of your 'comfort zone'.
Help others too!
Do you know someone who is lonely?
What skills and talents do you have to offer?
Can you offer them to an individual or group?
Be aware of how loneliness might feel. Tell others about what you think.
Show someone that you care. Visit someone you know is lonely. Take them some flowers. Send someone a card or letter
UK Organisations that can help
Campaign to End Loneliness
Together, we aim to end loneliness in older age.
ChildLine Helpline: 0808 11 11
Meetup is the world's largest network of local groups. Meetup makes it easy for anyone to organize a local group or find one of the thousands already meeting up face-to-face. More than 9,000 groups get together in local communities each day, each one with the goal of improving themselves or their communities.
MindInfoline: 0300 123 3393
Girlfriend Social is a website that connects women with new female friendships. This website is for Ladies only.
Silverline For older people 0800 4 70 80 90
Provides information and advice on a range of issues affecting young adults aged16-25 including sex and relationships.
For young adults aged 16 - 25
TheWay Foundation A unique local network for Mums (or Dads),
WAY is the only national charity in the UK for men and women aged 50 or under when their partner died.
Age UK Helpline: 0800 169 6565
Founded 150 years ago, an established voice for older people, providing the ‘ABC’ of advice, befriending and campaigning.
RVS (Royal Voluntary Service)
Contact the Elderly Call Freephone: 0800 716543
Contact the Elderly is the only national charity solely dedicated to tackling loneliness and social isolation among older people.
TheSamaritans Call free on: 0845 790 9090
Creating communities, connecting with neighbours, sharing, finding local services, spreading the word
Loneliness – connection to MIND